Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Birthday Cometh

The Grape turns four soon. Yesterday I asked what he'd like for his birthday.

He answered without hesitation. "Everything I don't already have."

Me: We're going to need to scale that way down. What's one thing you'd like for a birthday present?

Grape (face scrunches with intense concentration): I want a blimp.

Me: Okay. (Silently smug that for once I'll have time to track down the desired toy, even if our local toy store doesn't have it.)

Grape: A real one. Not a toy one. Those are silly.

Me: You can't have a real blimp. They're way too expensive. Think of something else.

Grape: A blimp is a good present for my birthday. (He nods as he tells me this, as if he's picked up on the negotiating tactic of nodding to stir subconscious agreement in the adverse party.)

I related the gift conversation to my mother, who's been asking for weeks what her grandson might like for a fourth birthday present. She said to tell the Grape that only corporations have blimps.

A few hours later, when the Grape renewed his request for a real blimp, I relayed this nugget, only to have the Grape say, without missing a beat, "I want a corporation."

Me: [Face palm.] You are not getting a corporation. How about a bicycle?

Gift selection isn't the only birthday minefield. The Grape has wised up to the concept of big birthday parties. I suspect this is the absolute last year I'll get away with having a family party and/or a few family friends over for ice cream cake.

The Grape knows that's the plan, but today, at birthday minus two weeks, this flies out of his mouth: "After the party with the ice cream cake, we can have another party for my whole class."

Apparently he sees no reason why his birthday shouldn't expand into a multi-day event, not unlike a wedding or the Olympic Games.

I wrote about children's birthday parties earlier this year, and my sentiments on them haven't evolved much. I'm still firmly in the they basically suck camp.

I'm also resistant to shelling out many hundreds of dollars to rent one of those My Gym places. Though I admit they do a great job. They keep the kids jumping up and down and shrieking in delight, they feed everyone, they let the parents bring in adult beverages, and most importantly, they clean up everything.  I'm also totally behind the eight ball, since they book parties months in advance.

If the day comes when I need to host the whole class, plus all their assorted siblings, it would be nice to do so in a space designed to accommodate twenty plus marauding maniacs jacked up on sugar.

It doesn't help my cause this year that we just attended one of those My Gym parties for a classmate last week. The party had a theme: Zebras and Orcas. Cute, right? I pictured plates and cups and balloons featuring the birthday boy's favorite animals.

Then I re-read the evite. The Grape's friend wanted his friends to dress up as zebras or orcas for the party.

I felt a rush of panic, because I am not crafty.

And a little betrayed, because this kid's mom seemed so delightful, so normal, so down to earth. Yet she expected me to spend a day making a papier mache zebra head that the Grape would probably refuse to wear anyway?

And I had to round up all the supplies in the middle of an epic heat wave?

All I could think (beyond the fact that I would have never in a million years pegged this mom as a glue gun wielding sadist) was that there's something reminiscent of The Godfather in any class of disembodied equine head.

And is The Godfather really appropriate for four year olds?

Not much later I felt like a weenie, for rushing to judgment. A follow up email arrived, explaining that they intended their costume directive extremely loosely, i.e. the kids could wear stripes, or black and white clothes, if they wanted.

I did one of those whole body exhales. The classmate's mom was indeed the lovely person I'd assumed she was all along. I was the goober who presumed the worst.  And I have to say, their zebra and orca cake was very cool.

That cake was so cool that the Grape asked this morning if he could have one just like it, you know, Mamma, when we have the party at My Gym, for my class.

"After my other party, Mamma," he added, his voice dripping buttercream sweetness, as if he knew he was throwing me a bone.

Monday, July 15, 2013

"Don't say YAY!"

The Grape's new battle cry: "Don't say YAY, don't say good job, don't say anything!"

At the ripe age of a month shy of four, he's issued an edict banning celebrations of accomplishments major and minor. No gleeful clapping when he swims a few strokes. No acknowledgement when he finishes his peas or aims all the tinkle into the toilet.

At first I thought his ban on positive reinforcement was a weird quirk, a silly phase that would pass, that we'd forget within weeks. But it's had some staying power. R. and I are going on three months of our attempts at positive reinforcement being met with withering negative reinforcement, dished up with no small amount of insistence by our pint sized tyrant.

This Saturday I had an epiphany: I suspect the Grape is embarrassed to be the littlest/most sheltered member of our circle of friends. Of course he isn't technically the youngest person we know. We know many babies. But among the friends we see most often, the Grape is usually the smallest and youngest full fledged kid. (Babies don't seem to be a factor in kid world planning.)

And of the gang of "usual" kids, he's the most cautious, the one who fears the magic carpet ski lift, the one who hangs on the pool stairs because he doesn't trust that his (Coast Guard approved) floatie will allow him to join his pals in the deeper water, the one who needs to hold my hand during the Winnie the Pooh Movie when the Backson appears. He is not a see-you-later-Mom-I'm-off-to-the-races kind of child.

Children with older siblings get world wise a lot faster than their only child contemporaries. They have to keep up with the program, for starters, and I suspect many second and subsequent kids are held to higher self sufficiency standards than their parents' firstborns ever had to meet. They feed themselves, dress themselves and learn to soothe themselves at a more tender age than the oldest in the family.

One area where my highly unscientific playground observations indicate that many first borns excel: self entertainment. First born kids learn to play by themselves because there's no built in older sibling to follow around. A lot of very experienced moms I know (ones with children in high school or older) assure me there's truth the to stereotype that the oldest is the likeliest to devour books for fun.

These anecdotes reassure me, but they do nothing to help with the paradox at hand: the Grape is babyish, but he feels like a baby for being babyish. And I'm part of the problem, because I subscribe to the "he's only little for a short time, so let's keep him innocent as long as possible" school of thinking.

The Grape doesn't know about the existence of evil. I kept him out of the loop when bombs went off on the block that houses his preschool. He got nightmares for a week when my mom's pastor made some reference, during a children's Easter sermon, to "the bad guys" (i.e. Roman soldiers from 2000 years ago) who "took Jesus away" (i.e. arrested and executed the hero of the tale). All this unfolded with the help of a colorful souvenir story cube. We had to get rid of the thing because the Grape became obsessed with the bad guys. "Why are they bad?" he ask me, over and over. Scratch visiting church on high holidays off the list of safe family activities.

Evil, I've reasoned, is something we will confront when we must. Not electively.

This Saturday, a group of friends went to see a matinee showing of the cartoon movie Despicable Me 2. I agonized for two weeks about letting the Grape go, polled friends on whether they were letting their youngest kids see the movie, drove them nuts by asking again and again—because, I mean, it got a PG. I had to know, WHY did a cartoon get a PG? Are there realistic looking guns in it? Do the characters say the F-word? Does someone die onscreen, and if so, of what cause?

I scoured reviews and even considered hiring a sitter so I could pre-screen the film and make an informed decision.

Could I, in good conscience, send the Grape, who fears the Backson, a colorful figment of Owl's imagination, into a dark, crowded, cavernous theater for the first time in his short life to be scarred for life scared?

I decided, at the last minute, that I could. Or rather that R. could. I wasn't about to buy three movie tickets when I thought the chances were 50/50 that we'd make it through. So I stayed behind with a friend and her newborn.

In the end, the Grape was afraid of parts of the movie, but he held his father's hand and toughed it out and was so happy to be there with his friends. He emerged into the warm summer evening looking really proud of himself, and I felt a twinge of regret for missing his first movie.

"Don't say good job," was all he had to say to me before he ran off to play with his friends. And that was the moment I got it. He's trying to say, "Don't act so surprised and proud, Mamma, when I do things everyone else can already do."

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


Dear readers: I'm sorry I haven't written in a few weeks. The Grape and I were traveling for much of that time to a faraway land without WiFi.

Actually, we spent most of the time in Finland, a technology advanced, highly connected country, where (very expensive) WiFi is apparently available everywhere but at my local library. (I suspect their wizened PC computers disliked my Mac.)

In hindsight, I realize that I should have hung out a closed for vacation sign, and I apologize for not doing so.

Now that I'm back, and re-connected to my own (only moderately costly) internet, I have a confession to make.

I liked unplugging.

And maybe, on some level, I found the exercise necessary. If I can live without indoor plumbing, as we did for a week of the trip, I can survive without social media.

For three weeks, I checked email about every other day from my phone, but I  didn't look at Facebook, or the many blogs I love, or even the NYT website.* I resisted the faint urge to upload and share photos of our vacation experiences in real time.

I didn't feel the slightest itch. If anything, I was reluctant to dive back in; I kept my phone shut off for a full sixteen hours after we landed back at Logan.

The Grape gets very little "screen time." He's not in full Waldorf style blackout, but all shows are pre-negotiated, most days he doesn't see any television at all, and he gets zero play around on screen gadgets time. The poor little guy has no idea my iPad features access to thousands of children's games. I just don't buy that apps and games aimed at his age group have "educational" value.

I'm not a saint about it. I have no shame about "turning on the babysitter" when I have adult company and an antsy tot. Once every few weeks, we make popcorn for family movie night. But to the Grape, those video splurges constitute special treats.

I'm not alone in my mistrust of the screen. Several teachers of young children have told me that they can tell immediately which children come from homes where the TV is always on, and let's just say it's not because those kids are achievers.

But if the television, or screens more generally, harm children's attention spans, then maybe periodic breaks from the electric flashing glow are good for the entire family.

While I go weeks without turning on the TV, I'm an info addict. I never go longer than a few hours without checking email and the headlines, and I've noticed that when I go dark on social media, sales of my books slump.

This last fact mystifies me, since I don't tweet compulsively, or even regularly, about my work. I don't keep up with the latest and edgiest messaging services. If anything, my Twitter presence should be hurting book sales since I'm forthright on many hot button topics, particularly gun control and women's rights. And elephants.

For all the advice out there for writers to "stay on message" and "avoid inflammatory subjects," I've found that a significant numbers of readers either like, or at least don't mind, that I happen to have opinions on subjects besides contemporary fiction.

Perhaps my periodically tweeted heartbreak over the plight of Africa's elephants mitigates my "controversial" opinion that firearms should be tightly regulated, whereas female reproductive organs should not.

Or maybe readers just like that I regularly tweet praise for other writers' work, and tweet about reading in general. Or maybe they like that I say what I really think. Or maybe they neither notice or care and the social media/sales connection is a total fluke.

There's no way to know for sure.

There's something frenetic—anxiety stoking, even—about the constant, immediate connection that I accept as a fact of modern life. But from this point forward I'm unplugging during vacations. I miss less, and enjoy myself and my kid more, when I don't have one eye on the phone.

How about you? Have you ever unplugged? Did you love it or loathe it?

*I made one exception to my world wide web blackout: I followed the news of DOMA's fall on Twitter. The Finnish state television news coverage was too brief to allow for proper savoring of that great moment in American history.